Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Discovering the Secrets of the Universe...and of Yourself

When a book starts out with "The problem with my life was that it was someone else's idea," you know you're in for a rough ride.  The heartbreaking and beautiful Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is rough, soft, draining, and uplifting in a way that is hoped for but unexpected.  Published in 2012 by American poet and author, Benjamin Alire SáenzAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a novel marketed to the young adult audience and explores a several year friendship between two Mexican-American young men, Aristotle (Ari) and Dante, who could not be anymore different.  However, they are strangely drawn to one another and become fast friends.  Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is more than just a story about friends though; it is about discovering the secrets of the universe, which, in the end, is discovering who you truly are.

Ari is a quiet, unsure teen, who is struggling with himself and with his family dynamics, loving, but wounded by the absence of his imprisoned brother.  Dante comes from a supportive, open home and is confident, self-possessed and borderline brilliant.  One of the more controversial aspects of this book is the friendship between Ari and Dante; Ari is struggling with his sexual identity, while Dante is confident in his homosexuality, just like he is confident in everything else about himself.  Their friendship becomes increasingly complicated when Ari realizes that he might be more emotionally invested in Dante than he expected to be.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz
This book is one of the best  YA novels I have read.  It unfolds slowly, but beautifully.  The characters are onions; there are layers and layers to each characters and Sáenz seems to delight in revealing their secrets. The characters are the main force in this book and they are well developed and are extremely easy to relate to. The action is driven methodically towards a climax that is rather predictable, but at the same time satisfying. Sáenz was not afraid to tackle hard hitting topics.  The book covers a myriad of topics, ranging from sexuality to family secrets to growing up to self-acceptance.  Ari's fear that he will become just another angry, imprisoned Mexican-American man like his brother is an undercurrent that drives his actions; he struggles with his emotions and feelings, and tries hard to balance his own wants, Dante's wants, and what he perceives are his parents'  wants.  The concept of keeping the peace with his parents also colors his relationships with others; Sáenz captures the never-ending angst of trying to be yourself while simultaneously trying to be the child your parents want you to be.  Sáenz also illustrates the difficulty of being a a homosexual Mexican-American male, especially during the time setting of the book (1987).  Ari fights his blossoming feelings for Dante, largely because he cannot mesh being Mexican-American and being in love with a male.  His struggle is contrasted with Dante, who does not seem to be bothered by his ethnicity and sexuality at all.  This quiet confidence makes Ari even more uncomfortable and it leads him to make some choices that will define his and Dante's paths forever.  Love is a powerful motivator in this book and Sáenz makes sure to illustrate the different types of love; parental, sibling, friends, romantic, all types of love can impact and reveal the secret of who you truly are.  Young love is more than just a flight of fancy in this book.  Sáenz makes is a defining concept for the characters and draws the reader into reflection of love being a defining characteristic of life.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is Sáenz's love letter to youth, self-discovery, and second chances.  You will cry, you will reflect, you will cringe, and you will be pulled into this story of love, self-discovery, and ultimately, self-acceptance.  It will make you view your life with new eyes and wonder what is holding you back from self love, self acceptance, and your own secret to the universe. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Rook Takes Bishop...

 As a librarian, people suggest books to me almost constantly.  Most suggestions are well-intended, but I usually do not heed them; I have very particular tastes in books and most of the suggestions do not make the cut.  However, when a coworker suggested The Rook by Daniel O'Malley, I considered and then put it on hold.

Oh. My. Gosh.  What a book.  A 2012 debut (a DEBUT!!!!) novel from O'Malley, an Australian author, The Rook begins with a woman in a park, at dark, surrounded by dead people wearing latex gloves, and no memory.  Long story short, Myfanwy Thomas is a member of the Checquy, a secret government organization dedicated to fighting the supernatural.  The Checquy, as Thomas discovers, is a hierarchical government agency that deals not only with supernatural events, but also with the everyday humdrum boring monotony of government work.  That is all I am going to give away about the plot.  This is the type of book that needs to slowly unfold as you read it; it is best to approach this book without any preconceived notions or ideas.  There is definitely magical and supernatural elements at work in this novel; there is also startlingly human elements at play, emotions, plans, and a search for self that pushes the plot forward and helps the reader more readily relate to the characters.

The Rook has been described as an "adult Harry Potter", which is offensive to both series.  This is far different from Harry Potter, which transports the reader to another world and encourages them to explore their feelings and imagination.  The Rook takes real life and adds a spin to it; albeit, the spin is complex, but not a stretch to the point where the reader doubts the validity.  Anyone can see themselves as the bedraggled government worker who is burned out on their job and the politics of the job to the point where an militia of ghouls, an infestation of zombies, or a dragon hatching is just another mound of paperwork.  What O'Malley manages to do with this book is create a mystery in a setting that is perceived as everyday and boring to the people in the book.  However, by having a protagonist with no memory, O'Malley still manages to tell a story and immerse the reader in a new world at the same time.  There is constantly a thin line between fantasy and real life throughout the novel and the reader finds themselves weaving in and out of the past and the present and questioning what is normal and what is not.  Flashbacks in books are frequently poorly handled, but O'Malley finds a clever way to catch the reader up on the past and on the vast array of information and characters presented.

Author Daniel O'Malley
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the story is the characters that O'Malley creates.  Most of the Checquy's members are recruited because they posses supernatural powers.  These powers range from small to nuclear (literally) and are the sword arm of the Chequy's power. O'Malley creates characters with personalities to fit their powers and these people are what make this book exciting, intriguing, funny, and dangerous.  There is an vast array of different personalities and these differences shine through in use of their powers and in the witty, clever dialogue that peppers the story.  Even the characters who are meant to be boring government pencil pushers are interesting and well-done.  Without O'Malley's talent for creating characters, The Rook would be lackluster.  It is truly the human element that triumphs the supernatural, making for both an exhilarating climatic end and a hunger for more.

I cannot fangirl enough about this book.  I cannot believe I went four years without knowing this book existed.  It is the best of mystery, the best of fantasy, and the best of mild horror all wrapped into one book.  If you read anything in 2017, please read The Rook.  It is suspenseful, funny, intellectual, and intriguing while remaining fast-paced and exciting.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Getting Cozy with Jenn McKinlay

There are times in our lives where the latest Pulitzer Prize winner is staring at you, the New York Times bestseller in nonfiction is whispering to you, and that awesome 2017 reading challenge that you have yet to start is making you feel guilty... and all you want is a fun, quick read that isn't romance. If this is you right now, never fear, Jenn McKinlay is here. McKinlay is an American author who specializes in cozy mysteries, which are mysteries that are short, fun, filled with quirky characters, usually a quaint town with lots of secrets, and a dead body. McKinlay has five series, three under her name and two under different pen names: Library Lover's Mysteries; Cupcake Bakery Mysteries; London Hat Shop Mysteries; Good Buy Girls Mysteries (writing as Josie Belle); Decoupage Mysteries (writing as Lucy Lawrence.) 

Although her pen name series are fun, they were short-lived.  It is the three series under her own name which are McKinlay's draw.  McKinlay uses a basic outline to establish her series, which makes her writing like a old comfortable friend; you know there are some surprises, but you also know that her books are not going to disappoint and that you will be left with a satisfied sense of happiness upon reading.  However, the mysteries are anything but formulaic. Her murders are often grisly and McKinlay makes a point to always highlight the senselessness of violence.  What makes McKinlay's work a slight departure from the normal cozy mystery is that McKinlay does a wonderful job of lightly touching upon the sometimes evil nature of man. McKinlay never makes murder or crime seem glamorous or exciting; she is quick to remind that death hurts many people and that crime can destroy a community.  Her villians are sometimes seemingly justified, sometimes not; either way, McKinlay makes sure that justice is served and healing begins in the community.  That being said, McKinlay also manages to maintain a light mood in the book with fun, exciting side characters (try a rival who dances in the streets dressed as a cupcakes and stalks the protagonist's bakery!) who add to the protagonist's life, in both good ways and in bad!  McKinlay is a female-centric writer; her protagonists are women who are strong, independent, and
smart.  They dabble in romance (with strong, handsome hunks, of course!) and know when to rely on their friends and family who love them.  The Library Lover's series is a great series to start with; Lindsey is a library director in a small, seaside community, which has its secrets to reveal throughout the series.  She is smart, funny, savvy, and is accompanied by a cast of characters who leave the reader laughing out loud.  As a librarian, I believe that McKinlay definitely got the feel, drama, gossip, triumphs, and failures of library life correct, which makes these even more enjoyable.

All in all, these are not hard boiled crime novels and you will not be left with burning questions of man's morality and the future of humanity. However, this is the draw of cozy mysteries! You get to be a part of a world where life has a slightly rosier tinge and you get to play detective. Cozies are a great, temporary getaway from life, and all of McKinlay's series provide the chance to take a break, read a book, and have a bit of fun.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Murder Most French AND English- The Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series

First novel in the Chief Inspector
Armand Gamache series
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec has a knack, not to mention a reputation, of falling into strange and dangerous murder investigations. He also has a knack and a reputation of solving them. The creation of award-winning Canadian author, Louise Penny, Gamache appeared on the mystery genre scene in 2005 in Still Life, winning Penny numerous awards and kicking off the start to a continuing series, with the 12th and latest book, A Great Reckoning, debuting this year. Based in the culturally tumultuous Quebec, Canada, in a village called Three Pines, Gamache faces down various cunning killers, motivated by greed, ambition, insanity, hate, jealousy, and sometimes, under the surface, racial tensions and stand-offs between the Francophone Quebecois and the Anglophone Quebecois. This last tension plays a running theme throughout Penny's series. True to real life, Penny weaves the ebb and flow of the tension of the primarily French Quebec in a primarily English Canada; this causes racial tensions to flare and a general confusion over who 'belongs' and who does not. This, among many things, is key to Penny's flawless storytelling in her novels.

Gamache can easily be compared to Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot; he is detail oriented and believes that the solutions always lie within the personal interactions of people, rather than the physical clues that remain from the crime. His observations and analysis of the interactions is what primarily drives the story lines. Gamache, unlike many of the people around him, is largely without prejudices and utilizes his personal kindness and compassion in his investigations. He attempts to hammer these virtues into his fellow police officers and into the people involved in the investigations, suspects and witnesses alike. However, Gamache is not completely flawless; past mistakes come back to haunt him in several books and people who he inadvertently scorned come back with a vengeance. However, Gamache is the hero that everyone wants; he is calm, quiet, compassionate, deeply in love with his wife, and tries his best to balance the good and the bad in all people. He is the cop everyone wants on their case... except for the bad guy, because Gamache will most certainly nab them.

Penny does a startlingly wonderful job at making the reader want to back everything up and move to
Author Louise Penny
this quaint, beautiful village, even though murder seems to happen at an alarming rate in the area. Penny, as a Canadian native herself, infuses love and awe in her descriptions of the landscape and of the traditions and eccentricities of Canadian life and Quebec village life. Seasons play a big part in the series and Penny describes the weather's affect on the village and the people in a way that makes the weather almost another character. Penny's secondary characters, although memorable and crucial to the plot, still play second-fiddle to the power and the force of Gamache's character. Penny also does a great job describing the settings without using too many words; she uses the descriptions to lay the groundwork for the conversations and interactions that drive the story.

These stories are much better than I had expected. Penny took an unusual circumstance in Canada, the schism in Quebec, and wrote eloquent, complex murder mysteries that incorporate the tension. Readers will be completely immersed in these stories and will feel not only a part of Three Pines, but also like they have met and known everyone Penny writes about.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg

I grew up with an undeniable fascination for the lost Imperial Russian Royal family (and particularly Anastasia, of course). I remember watching Unsolved Mysteries back in 1998 and listening to Robert Stack describe how Anna Anderson's ears matched Anastasia Romanov's ears at 14 different points. Well then, mystery solved, I thought. Of course that's Anastasia.

I was about ten. I didn't need much convincing.

The later discovery of the Romanov remains quashed any wishful thinking; the entire Romanov family had indeed died back in 1918 via firing squad in Ekaterinburg, Russia. Like Marie Antoinette, the Romanovs have endured in the collective public consciousness as tragic victims of a violent political upheaval. We see that beautiful young family in photographs and shake our heads. We mourn the loss of a royal dynasty. 

Helen Rappaport re-establishes the Romanovs as people in The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg. Her sharp focus on their final fourteen days highlights the Romanovs' familial relationships as they struggle to stave off the boredom that comes with being secluded in the private Ipatiev House. The Romanovs are kept alive as political pawns, isolated from the outside world, and have long ago lost the agency to determine or affect their fate. 

So what does a family do when they're isolated, when they've given up hope? They band together. The readers know what's coming; the dread lies in reading their monotonous daily trifles, their grinding routines to keep themselves occupied. 

It's hard to disagree with Rappaport's poor assessment of Tsar Nicholas II's reign: the introverted Tsar preferred to shut himself away inside the Alexander Palace rather than acknowledge Russia's challenges or shifting political climate. His German-born Tsaritsa, Alexandra, had given him four daughters before producing a sickly male heir, Alexey. Alexandra's reliance on an unpopular holy man called Rasputin to curtail Alexey's bleeding attacks had seriously wounded the family's pious public image. By the time Nicholas abdicated in 1917, Russia was in the midst of a full-blown Revolution.

Author and Historian Helen Rappaport.
Courtesy of
But Rappaport isn't really interested in exploring the failures of the fallen monarch. Instead, she focuses on the personalities stuck in solitary confinement. Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia sew. Alexey plays with tin toys. Nicholas reads. Sewing and reading occasionally give way to card games. Talking with the multitude of guards is forbidden, though Nicholas and the girls try anyway. Maria, in particular, is caught in a "compromising situation" with a guard who'd smuggled a cake into the house for her 19th birthday.   

Rappaport's contrast of small routine to the big picture politics is brutally effective. There was nothing for the Romonov family to do but wait as Commandant Yurovsky worked out the particulars of their execution.

As soon as I finished reading, I grabbed my dog and took her for a long walk in the sunshine. Don't read this book at night. 

The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg by Helen Rappaport is available at the library and as an e-book on Overdrive.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Amory Ames is on the Case!

What's there NOT to like in murder, intrigue, post-war British grandeur, and a bit of romance?  This is what you get with Amory and Milo Ames. Picture Downton Abbey meets Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence series and you get the Amory Ames mystery series.  Written by Louisiana librarian, Ashley Weaver, the Amory Ames series follows Amory, a young British socialite who is navigating the turbulent waters of British high society, her tumultuous marriage, and the occasional murder thrown in. Weaver, a librarian from Allen Parish, Louisiana, sets her mysteries in the boisterous, extravagant background of post-WWI England, where parties, high society, and a devil-may-care attitude reign supreme in the lives of the Ameses and their social circles.  Despite being a 21st century American, Weaver does an excellent job in recreating what English high society was and how it could be fraught with secrets, intrigue, and back-stabbing, not to mention shallowness, vanity, and superficiality that marked the 1920's in European high society.
Keep an eye out for Amory and
Milo's third adventure, 
A Most Novel Revenge,
October 11, 2016!

These are definitely cozy mysteries (great ones, a facet that is sometimes lacking in the genre), ones with fun antics, daring, and a neatly tied up ending; these are the ultimate beach books, ones that transport you to 1920's England with all the fancy trappings, but also involve you in a well-plotted, intriguing mystery. Amory and her handsome, playboy, there's-more-to-him-than-we-know, husband, Milo, are wealthy, beautiful, and have a knack for getting sucked into mysteries that often involve corpses.  Although reluctant to admit it, Amory enjoys playing detective, much the chagrin of the local police and Milo. Once engrossed in a mystery, Amory uses her social status, her wit, and her attention to detail to figure out clues and the whodunit on the sly.  Amory is your typical cozy mystery detective: fun, beautiful, bright, and keen, a British grown-up Nancy Drew. Although formulaic, Amory is still very engaging and is fun to follow through her sometimes dangerous exploits.

It is her husband Milo who breaks the mold of the cozy mystery husband, who is stereotypically doting and willing to take the backseat to the quick wits of his stubborn, but brilliant wife. Not Milo Ames.  He is a rogue, doing what he wants when he wants to.  He is a tabloid magnet, usually spotted with women who are not Amory and is usually gallivanting around the hot spots in Europe.  He adores Amory but makes no excuses for his apparent bad behavior, instead placating her with vague reassurances about his innocence and solemn promises of his love for her.  Milo is ridiculously handsome and knows it; he uses his looks and charms to assist Amory in her investigations, prying out clues and statements from unsuspecting suspects.  He is reluctant for Amory to get involved out of concerns for her safety, but is unable to resist the intrigue and the pull of being a detective alongside her.  Milo is possibly the best part of these books; he is witty, funny, and smart, both in mind and in looks.  There is much speculation about Milo and his vagueness about his whereabouts, his company he keeps, and why his exploits are in such contradiction with his seemingly sincere love and devotion for Amory.  Is he a spy?  Is he a criminal?  What is Milo hiding behind his apparent (but untrue?) philandering and playboy lifestyle?  Milo is the true mystery of the books and Weaver makes sure to keep the mystique of Milo alive while whirling his and Amory's relationship around the actual murder mystery taking place.
Louisiana Author, Ashley Weaver,
courtesy of

This is one of the best cozy mystery series currently out there.  It has all the elements of a great mystery and Weaver does an excellent job of condensing it down to a manageable read.  The books are great mysteries without being campy, a trap that many cozies fall into.  The plot lines has character and detail and draw the reader into the conflict and ruckus without becoming overbearing.  There is melodrama without being ridiculous and there is a sense of macabre without being gory.  Weaver tows the line of intriguing mystery and cozy mystery perfectly.  This series is definitely a relaxing but fun read, and the whodunit factor will keep you turning the pages (or swiping the screen!) until Amory and Milo solve the day!

Calcasieu Parish Public Library System would like to congratulate Ashley Weaver, from their LSW partner Allen Parish, on her success!  It is awesome to see a local librarian go to the big leagues!!!! :-)

Saturday, April 23, 2016

If You Give a Reader a Dessert, They'll Want a Book Pairing!

Desserts inspired by your favorite books
Courtesy of

Thanks to the lovely readers at Shari's Berries, I present to you the ultimate awesome list: books and accompanying dessert ideas!  Try out a dessert and bite into a good book!

This was provided by the awesome people over at Shari's Berries. I appreciate their reaching out to Bayou Bytes!